Two reflections on our first African American president’s first twelve months. Featuring remarks from Glenn C. Loury and R. Drew Smith.
One year ago, it seemed the sky was the limit for Barack Obama. Huge crowds gathered in Washington, braving freezing weather, to witness his Inauguration in person. A whole new movement of politically active citizens, comprised of young and old, Democrats, Independents, disenchanted Republicans, and people of all races and cultures, stood together and looked forward to seeing Obama’s platform of “Change,” “Hope,” and “Yes We Can” realized in the White House.
Well, a year later the Hope Meter’s needle is barely budging. What started as a “post-partisan,” “post-racial” moment became a year full of bitter partisanship (e.g., Tea Bag Parties, Congressional hecklers) and recurring episodes of racially tinged melodramas (e.g., the Sonia Sotmayor confirmation, the Henry Louis Gates arrest). Even unexpected bright spots, like Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, were drained of their joy due to the rancorous political atmosphere. But worst of all for Obama had to be Tuesday night’s stunning Democratic loss in the Massachusetts special election to fill the late Edward Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat. With his historic victory, Scott Brown became the first Republican senator from Massachusetts since 1979, and the first Republican to take the Kennedy seat since 1947. What’s more, any hope of passing President Obama’s health-care reform bill, the central legislative initiative of his first year, now seems all but lost.
On this occasion of President Obama’s first year in office, we asked two respected scholars (and men of faith) to weigh in with their evaluations of Obama’s performance. Their comments offer two divergent views of the Obama presidency so far.
So Much for ‘Change’
By Glenn C. Loury
From where I sit, the high point of President Obama’s young administration was its Inauguration. Much seemed possible on that glorious day, but it has been downhill since. Hope, it would appear, is more easily inspired than it is justified. And, those eloquent speeches about Change during Obama’s historic and euphoric campaign look now to have been precisely what the candidate’s detractors said they were — just words.
Specifically, my own personal hope had been that elevating a progressive African American Democrat to the nation’s highest office would do two things: help to bring about an effective engagement with America’s unresolved problems of racial inequality; and, begin to reverse our headlong march toward a Hundred Years War with radical Islam. I did not expect these things to happen overnight, of course, but I did expect to see movement in this direction. This administration has shown scant inclination to do either, which is disappointment enough. But worse — far worse — is the likelihood that Obama’s failure even to attempt such changes will discredit the very idea that these are worthy political objectives for any Democrat.
Obama has said little of substance about racial inequality since moving into the Oval Office, and what he has said leaves much to be desired. His speech to the NAACP convention was a rehash of his by now familiar “family values” homily. His comments on the arrest last summer of a black Harvard professor were shockingly inept. Our black president seems eager to address the American public with passion about the race issue when his “friend” has been mistreated by the police, but not if it means stressing policy reforms that might keep tens of thousands of troubled black men out of prison.
As for the new American militarism, Obama has not really changed the direction in which we are headed. Indeed, and ironically, his speech in Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize attempted to justify American military hegemony as the necessary precondition of global security and prosperity in the second half of the twentieth century. His conduct of the War on Terror — and, most distressingly, his escalation of our involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war — is eerily reminiscent of the approach of his immediate predecessor.
This is not change of any kind, let alone of the kind that we can believe in.
Dr. Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He taught previously at Boston University, Harvard, and Northwestern. In addition to his scholarly work, Loury is a prominent social critic and public intellectual, a frequent commentator on national radio and television, and an advisor on social issues to business and political leaders throughout the country. His books include One by One, From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America (winner of the American Book Award and the Christianity Today Book Award) and The Anatomy of Racial Equality. Dr. Loury also shared these comments with The Nation magazine.
A Solid Start, Despite the Arrows
By R. Drew Smith
One of the great accomplishments of President Barack Obama’s first year in office has been his receptive but resolute style of leadership when facing “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and the “contumely” of “proud” men (to borrow from Shakespeare). In pursuing the presidency, Barack Obama was not unaware of the enormous difficulties the country was facing amidst a global economic meltdown and involvements in two costly and controversial wars. The responses he has mobilized, especially the massive economic stimulus program and his leadership in guiding health-care reform forward, have exceeded all but the most optimistic expectations. Yet criticisms of his performance have been withering, unrelenting, and filled with a fury that has been politically unsettling, to say the least.
Through it all, President Obama has continued to reach out to his critics, while conveying a deep-seated faith in the good will of the American people. The office he presently occupies and our fragile coexistence within our nation — and our world — necessitate a strong commitment to statesmanship. In his first year in office, President Obama has placed his presidency on very solid footing in this regard.
Dr. R. Drew Smith is Director of the Center for Church and the Black Experience at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Scholar-in-Residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. He has edited numerous volumes on churches and public life, including Black Churches and Local Politics: Clergy Influence, Organizational Partnerships, and Civic Empowerment and New Day Begun: African American Churches and Civic Culture in Post-Civil Rights America. He is currently writing a book on black churches and contemporary public policy activism.